If you’ve noticed dark patches of skin developing on parts of the body frequently exposed to the sun, it could be melasma. The skin discoloration is not harmful but is a cosmetic concern for many individuals.

Melasma is a very common skin condition and affects far more women than men. Individuals with darker skin are more susceptible to melasma, and it tends to run in families. The exact cause isn’t known, but melasma appears to be triggered by sun exposure and hormones.

The dark patches seen in melasma occur when melanocytes (the cells responsible for producing skin color) make too much color. Areas commonly affected include the cheeks, forehead, nose, over the upper lip, and chin. Less frequently, it can develop on the neck and forearms.

Since melasma looks similar to other skin conditions, it’s a good idea to consult your dermatologist for diagnosis. Dermatologists sometimes examine the affected skin under a Wood’s light, a black light device that helps determine the depth of penetration.

Without treatment, melasma can take years to fade or may never go away. However, melasma triggered by hormones may resolve once hormone levels change. When the condition develops during pregnancy, some people refer to it as the mask of pregnancy. Melasma due to pregnancy or birth control pills may go away without treatment once the pregnancy ends or birth control is stopped.

Treatment of melasma is designed to lighten the skin. Mild topical medications containing hydroquinone are available over-the-counter. Your dermatologist may also prescribe stronger creams, lotions, gels and liquids to improve or speed results.

For stubborn cases, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, or dermabrasion, may be recommended.

Melasma often responds well to treatment, but it’s important to find the best therapy for your particular skin type. Talk with your dermatologist about treatment options and reduce the risk of melasma returning by protecting your skin from the sun. Apply sunblock before going outdoors and remember to wear hats and sun protective clothing.